Solving the Mystery of Yerevan's Brutal Chaos

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Almost a year ago, I arrived in Yerevan just as the Armenian capital was engulfed by brutal chaos. Armed police and protesters fought running battles through the city streets during a night of unrestrained violence that left 10 people dead.

On the road to the city, I saw a long, ominous line of army trucks carrying troops from their barracks toward the capital, a clear sign that the authorities were mobilizing their forces to deal with the demonstrators.

When I got to the scene of the demonstration, furious protesters had already built barricades and were making petrol bombs and arming themselves with staves, while grim-faced policemen were lining up their riot shields just a few meters away, getting ready to move in. Soon afterward, missiles started to fly and tracer bullets lit up the night sky.

Armenia is still trying to come to terms with what happened on that horrific night last March, and seven opposition figures, including a former foreign minister, are currently on trial on charges of masterminding the violence in an attempt to seize power by force.

At the prosecutor's office, I was given transcripts of surveillance tapes recorded by the security services. In a typical exchange just before the protesters started gathering, one opposition leader asks, "So what are we doing now?" Another responds: "Well, don't know. Come up with a shared decision." The first says, "Would be better if more people go there." That, insists the prosecutor, is proof of a "closely developed plan" to overthrow the government.

But the wife of one of the defendants told me a very different story. She insisted that this was a show trial and described the men as political prisoners. "I think they are heroes because they want their country to be free, and they're willing to go to jail for that and stay in jail for as long as it takes," she declared.

For those who lost sons or husbands that night, no court case can end the grief. The mother of one 23-year-old victim, who was shot in the head, told me that she was still upset that no official had offered her condolences. A picture of the young man stood behind her on a table, surrounded by religious icons. "Every day I remember that night," she said quietly. "I couldn't believe he was killed. I told my husband that he was mistaken, maybe that was someone else's body in the morgue. I cannot forget."

Matthew Collin is a journalist based in Tbilisi.